Stretching the ringgit: how families of 5-7 people do it

The Malaysian Insight

With the cost of living a major concern for many Malaysians, The Malaysian Insight takes a closer look at how some families in different parts of the country are stretching the ringgit. We chose households whose combined earnings are between RM3,000 and RM4,000 to reflect those in the bottom 40% (B40) of households with a monthly income of less than RM3,900. This income range is also the bracket for Putrajaya’s RM900 annual handout under category 2 of the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M).  In a two-part series today and tomorrow, we look at how households of different sizes with this income range manage their expenses, what some do for side income and how they cope in times of emergencies.

NASSIR Abdullah from Perak said his family lives by faith and so far, has never been found wanting despite having little left after spending his monthly income on necessities, while Siti Aishah Ramli from Kuching offers a prayer of thanks if she makes it through to the end of each month without any emergency to drain her finances.

Most B40 households, like Nassir’s and Siti Aishah’s, spend almost 80% of their income on essential expenses, according to a 2017 report by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), “Be prepared for subsidy-free system”.

“The gap between household income and expenditure of B40 shows (that) the cost of living is high and there is limited room for future savings,” MIER said in its report.

True enough, most people interviewed said they lived from paycheque to paycheque with some taking on part-time jobs to supplement their income. Few managed to have savings for emergencies and some indulgences.


Backhoe driver R. Kumar, 50, from Taman Tiong, Kulim brings home RM3,000 as the sole breadwinner in a household of seven with five schooling kids. His wife is a full-time homemaker while his two oldest who are studying at a polytechnic work part-time for their own expenses.

For the Kumar household, monthly groceries amount to RM1,000 while the next big-ticket item is the housing loan of RM1,200. 

The rest of the pay goes to petrol (RM200), tuition for the younger children (RM200), utilities (RM150), WiFi (RM120) and Astro (RM110).

Kumar said his family buy basic foodstuff, such as vegetables, fish, chicken, rice and cooking oil.

Anlene and Milo are their most expensive buys.

Some things you still have to buy even with the prices going up. Like Anlene. We just buy in smaller quantities,” he said when asked if they have had to give up buying any particular item to stretch their budget.

They favour shopping at grocery shops, the wet market and ECO shop, where most items are priced at RM2.12.

Kumar does not have a credit card and there is barely any money left at the end of the month.

 “When emergencies happen and we need money, I go to my boss and ask for a loan. The boss then deducts from my pay,” he said.


Nassir, who said he lives by faith, is a bread salesman from Simpang Pulai with a basic salary of RM1,900 before commissions.

In a good month, commissions from bread sales can bump his total earnings up to RM4,000, but most of the time, he earns about RM3,000. His wife supplements the family income by babysitting, which brings in another RM1,000.

“In February this year, I had a heart attack and for two weeks I could not work. So, I didn’t get any commission. But we got by because people visited me and gave money,” said the 48-year-old.

The bulk of combined earnings goes to school fees for the couple’s two daughters and one son, aged 20, 18 and 16, who attend and board at a tahfiz school, which costs RM1,600 a month for the three. 

Nassir’s housing loan is RM550 monthly, while the food bill is about RM450 but goes up when the children are home for the holidays. 

The remainder of RM1,000-plus goes towards utilities, petrol, his meals outside when he works and sedekah (alms). Nassir said he is active in mosque activities and a firm believer in giving to others even when he has little to spare himself.

It’s a good thing that my wife is babysitting because we usually run out of money before the end of the month. The parents of the kids she takes care of are in the civil service. They get paid before the end of the month. So that always make up our shortfall,” he said.

When faced with an emergency, such as car breakdown or hospitalisation, he admits that there is hardly any saving.

“But there is always money that will come in times like this. This is the power of sedekah,” he said.


Civil servant Sham, who did not want his full name disclosed, has a take-home pay of RM2,500 and supplements his income by installing and servicing air-conditioners on weekends, which can earn him RM1,000 in a productive month. Most months, however, it only brings in a few hundred ringgit.

He is also in the army reserve (Askar Wataniah), which gives an allowance of RM6 per hour or RM60 per day when he reports for duty on weekends. He can earn up to RM240 a month if he spends two weekends at the army camp.

The sole breadwinner of his family of five, Sham lives in Labu and commutes 40 minutes by motorbike to his office in Kajang. His three young children are seven, four and two. His wife teaches classes on Quran reading to a few neighbourhood children but gets no more than RM100 as a token amount.

Sham’s salary is spent on servicing his housing loan from the government, which is RM680, car loan (RM650), motorbike loan (RM220), groceries (RM500) and petrol (RM200). 

The most expensive items in his monthly shopping bill are nappies and milk powder for his two younger children. 

“We usually shop at NSK. It is cheaper than Mydin. The wet items, such as fish and vegetables, are fresh. But fish is very expensive. We usually buy those that is sold in a plate for like RM5 or RM10.

“We have never bought fish that has to be weighed. That’s beyond our budget,” said Sham who, on very rare occasions, splurges on crabs.

The daily necessities aside, he does not buy clothing for himself unless it is totally worn out.

“At the most, I buy once a year. Even that I buy in a shop in Triang which is near my hometown. If I need to buy any clothing here, it will be from Mydin, where clothes are the cheapest.”

His stint in the army reserve is coming to an end next month and he has started training to become a part-time civil defence personnel (pertahanan awam). Once he receives his badge number, he can be in service on weekends, which pays RM6 per hour.

As for emergencies, Sham laughed: “Budget lari, lah. I will have to ask my siblings for loans.”


Things did not use to be so tough for Janice Quek, a mother of three. Until three years ago, Quek and her husband who worked as a machinist, had a combined income of about RM4,000 a month.

But in 2014, her husband met with an accident and has not worked since.

“It’s tough,” said Quek. “Even in Muar, I have to make do.”

The 38-year-old is now the sole breadwinner supporting a family of five by working two jobs. She is an office clerk by day and an “introducer” by night.

“Whenever somebody needs a place to rent or wants to buy a car or look for printing services, I help introduce them,” she said.

Quek, who earns around RM1,600 a month after working 10 years in the same office in town, said she can earn an additional RM500 to RM800 from her part-time job.

The family never go on holidays any more, nor do they shop for new clothes or dine out. Her income from both jobs never exceeds RM2,500.

“We just mend the clothes until we can’t. And the children have to pass down their clothes to each other.”

Quek’s monthly earnings are spent on housing loan (RM1,000), petrol (RM300), utilities and handphone (RM300), tuition for the children (RM200) and food (RM500-RM600).

“My mother-in-law cooks for us and we give her money. But I think she spends more than what money we give her.”

For her two children who are in school, Quek gives them RM1 a day to spend.

“Luckily my job here is flexible and it allows me the chance to take them to school and fetch them home. This saves us some money.”


Siti Aishah Ramli worries about her car every month and prays that it will not break down when she needs it most.

“I need my car for work so I would have to dig into my almost depleted budget to get it fixed if it breaks down,” the 29-year-old mother of one said.

The corporate communications executive at the Malay car importers and dealers’ association (Pekema) in Kuching has a take-home pay of RM3,000 a month.

Her husband earns about the same amount but he spends it on providing for his parents, just as Siti Aishah does for hers, with whom she, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter live.

The household of five live in Kg Sourabaya Ulu, the village across Sungai Sarawak across from the city.

The good thing about living with her parents is that she does not need to worry about rent. Neither does she have to worry about medical bills as her husband’s employer, state power company Sarawak Energy Bhd, takes care of that.

She, however, has to budget monthly for her car loan (RM585); education loan to the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN – RM170); utility bills, including WiFi (RM500); basic groceries (RM400); her toddler’s toiletries and baby needs (RM300); and petrol (RM300).

“All this takes up about two thirds of my salary. The few hundred ringgit left are for emergencies or better quality food like fish, meat and poultry.”

To stretch her money, Aishah will shop at places where she knows the goods are cheaper or reasonably priced, even if it means driving further rather than shopping nearer to home.

She hardly goes out with friends and eating out is a rarity. Things are “all right” for now, but she worries about the future when her daughter is older and will require fees for preschool and school.

In emergencies, she turns to her parents after other options are exhausted.

“I know they have long retired but they are the first people I go to for desperate financial help because I can count on them and because they also know they will get their money back.”

Supermarket prices are beyond many families, who prefer to shop at grocery shops or the wet market. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, September 11, 2017.


BJ Rudy Baba’s wife stopped working six months ago to focus on raising their two teenage children, aged 13 and 15.

Living in Penampang in a 750-square foot apartment, the 38-year-old has two sources of side income to supplement his salary of RM3,000 as a blue-collar civil servant.

“I drive for a ride-hailing app at night and sell electric guitar parts and other musical instruments via social media and online.”

He said he felt thankful for the side income, which helped to keep him afloat as his monthly commitments currently exceed his civil servant’s salary. 

Each month, groceries for the four-person family cost nearly RM2,000, utilities, including home internet (RM750) and housing and car loans (RM1,200).

The price of fresh fish in Kota Kinabalu averages around RM10 to RM25 per kilo, while chicken around RM10 to RM13 per kilo, meat around RM19 to RM21 per kilo and vegetables around RM3 to RM6 per kilo. 

“The most expensive item on my grocery list is the rice. I am a diabetic, so I have to buy a special kind of rice that cost me around RM40 for 5kg.”

He has also given up his Astro subscription, which he considered a “luxury”. 

 “At the moment, my company is providing medical care for me and my family. But in an emergency, although it is rare, I am forced to use my credit card.” – September 11, 2017.

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